Letter from…Australia

Truck driving is most associated with big, burly men, but in a remote part of Australia an intrepid band of women are taking the ‘road train’ world by storm. Julie Power reports

Lyndal Denny admits that she used to suffer from ‘learned helplessness’ around motor vehicles. That’s something I share. I once drove for 30 minutes wondering about a rhythmic clunk, clunk, clunk. It was a flat tire. Unlike Denny, I haven’t felt the need to address this weakness by becoming a road train driver on the remotest and hottest roads in Australia, where a group of women are changing the face of truck driving.

Denny’s life changed seven years ago when a trucker nearly killed her and her teenage son by tailgating on a treacherous stretch of highway in northern New South Wales. “We’re talking gross intimidation,” she says. “And I am not a female who is easily scared.”

Denny was an office manager living a suburban life on the east coast of Australia. In those days, if she had a flat tire, she believed a “nice man” would change it. For 10 kilometres between the beachside towns of Byron Bay and Ballina, Denny was followed by a rogue truckie.

Jones convinced trucking’s biggest critic, Denny, to relocate 5,500 kilometres across Australia to retrain as a road-train driver at the age of 55

“For the first five kilometres, he was just right behind me. He was being so aggressive, I thought he was going to hit my car. So I thought: ‘Right, I am going to come slowly to a halt.’ I went from 60, to 50, to 40, then finally pulled up on the highway. On it,” she repeats for emphasis.

It was the third instance of dangerous tailgating she’d experienced in as many months. She launched a campaign urging motorists to “dob in” truckies for aggressive driving. Thousands did. It was then she met Heather Jones, a female road-train driver, who argued that they were both working for safer trucking.

Of the 558,000 heavy-vehicle-licence holders in Australia, fewer than five per cent are women. It is risky, but truck drivers in the Pilbara can earn twice as much as elsewhere in Australia. But it is a “man’s world”, says Jones. With bright pink socks tucked in her steel-capped boots, Jones is dragging trucking into the 21st century by making it safer and more representative of Australian society.

Female truckers
Lyndal Denny became a trucker after campaigning against dangerous driving

Up in the Pilbara mining region, Jones has trained about 30 women in her Scania truck. She convinced trucking’s biggest critic, Denny, to relocate 5,500 kilometres across Australia to retrain as a road-train driver at the age of 55.

The two women have set up a driver training programme, the Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls Inc, which gets hundreds of emails from women, and some men, from across Australia, asking for help breaking into the industry.

Jones and Denny are writing Stilettos to Steel Caps, a guide for women in trucking. “It’s the ducks’ guts, the inside working mechanisms of how to drive a road train – how to drive and survive. It covers health issues, such as how to use a bullbar for exercises, how to keep safe and how to talk on two-way radio,” said Jones.

It includes tips for women on how to keep safe when parking on deserted roads or truck stops, including reminders not to hang bras out to dry on the bullbar.

Fussy or PC women need not apply, says Denny: “If you’re going to be princessy, it’s not for you.”